Plum Street Series

Gourlay Brothers

Robert Gourlay was born in 1792 in Fifeshire, Scotland. His first wife’s maiden name was Cameron and they had 3 children, William, Thomas, and Sarah. Robert married Helen Lawson on October 22, 1822 in Edinburgh, Scotland. They had two daughters, Margaret and Lilly Ann, and three sons, George, James, and Alfred – who would become the owners of “Gourlay Brothers” in Detroit in the 1870s. Margaret was born July 26, 1829 and died in Detroit on March 8, 1918. George was born January 7, 1834 and died December 8, 1900 in Detroit. Lilly Ann was born December 31, 1835. She died May 17, 1860 in New York City. James was born December 3, 1837 and died November 19, 1919 in Detroit. Alfred was born July 31, 1845 and died in Detroit on March 5, 1930.

Robert Gourlay’s children with his first wife:

WILLIAM – born 1815 in Edinburgh. He was a popular comedian and actor, playing roles in Scotland, England, Australia, and America. He married Louisa J. Ryder on Oct. 25, 1841 and had 6 children – Ellen, Jessie, Robert, Corbet, John, and Alice. With his second wife, Susan, William had 2 more children, Minnie and William. The whole family was involved in the theatre. In 1866-1869, he and the family traveled to Australia. He visited New Zealand in 1874 with his collection of curiosities. In the summer of 1880, the Gourlay family made their last stage appearance in Newcastle, England. They presented Mrs. MacGregor’s Levee on July 26-27, 1880.
THOMAS – born 1820 in Edinburgh. He was also an actor. He and daughters Jeannie and Margaret were in the cast of “Our American Cousin” the night Lincoln was assassinated. Apparently, Jeannie had just left the stage when the shot was fired. According to a Feb. 3, 1968 article in The Pocono Record, Thomas covered Lincoln with a flag from the theater and helped to carry Lincoln to a house across the street. The flag is currently at the Pike County Historical Society’s The Columns Museum.

The cast from Our American Cousin the night of April 14, 1865

In the 1841 Scotland census, Robert’s family was living at 219 High Street in Edinburgh where Robert was a tailor. Robert died before the 1851 census, in which the family was still living at the same address. Helen was a draper and her sons George and James were draper’s assistants. In May 1855, Lilly Gourlay married George Welwood Murray in Edinburgh. The next year, Helen and her children left Scotland for New York. George Murray, Lilly, and their son George came in July 1858. In the 1860 U.S. Census, taken on June 5th, Helen and her three sons were living in New York City. George and James were clerks and Alfred was a compositor (a typesetter). Next to Helen lived her son-in-law George W. Murray, his sons George (4 years old) and James Alan (11 months), and Helen’s daughter Margaret. Sadly, Lilly Ann had died the previous month.

On October 21, 1866, James Gourlay married Jean F. Craig in Manhattan. On August 9, 1868, they placed membership at the Plum Street Church of Christ in Detroit. On January 15, 1869, George Gourlay married Maria Stanbery in New York. In the 1870 U.S. Census, Helen and her children Margaret and Alfred were still living in New York City. James and Jean were living in Detroit where James worked in a tailor shop. In the May 8, 1870 Detroit Free Press, an advertisement for Baxter & Gourlay, “fashionable merchant tailors” from New York, stated that they had just opened a store at 156 Jefferson Avenue. On May 1, 1873, Baxter & Gourlay dissolved. Baxter stayed at the Jefferson Ave. store and James occupied a store next to the Detroit Opera House. In 1875, Alfred Gourlay (who had married Laura Andruss in 1872) joined his brother in Detroit and Gourlay Brothers was formed. Their brother George joined them in Detroit in 1878 (I think his wife Maria never joined him in Detroit and stayed in New York with her parents until George divorced her for desertion in 1893). The brothers all joined the Plum Street Church of Christ and were “noted for their musical ability.” According to Boyd, William B. Thompson, ex-mayor of Detroit, used to stand outside the church building and listen to the singing (p. 106).

In 1875, James’ wife Jean went to Scotland with a bunch of her lady friends. According to the Paw Paw, Michigan newspaper The True Northerner for May 7, 1875, “A party of Detroit ladies will shortly leave their hubands, and unaccompanied by any male protector, will proceed to Scotland to see their relatives and recruit their health. The names of the party are: Mrs. A. R. Linn [Jeanette Craig, Jean’s sister], Mrs. John Harvey [Jessie G. Campbell, daughter of Colin Campbell & Caroline Linn], Mrs. James Gourlay [Jean F. Craig], Mrs. C. A. Lorman [Janette Linn, Caroline’s sister], and Miss Emma Haywood [Emma Hayward, John S. Gray’s sister-in-law].” In October 1875, the Plum Street Church of Christ’s Literary Society elected John S. Gray as president, James Gourlay as vice-president, and Alfred Gourlay as secretary.

According to the Detroit Free Press (8-14-1904), in 1876 at the Gourlay Brothers store, “one of the first illuminated signs in Detroit appeared, formed of gas jets. Of course, it attracted a good deal of attention, and, curiously enough, on the first night the jets were lighted, the sign did not work well and it read as follows: ‘Gourlay’s Shirt tore.'”

John Gourlay, nephew of the Gourlay Brothers

John was the son of William Gourlay, the half-brother of James, George, and Alfred. He became an actor and comedian like his father, beginning at 4 years old. He went with his father to Australia in 1866. He joined a group called The Salsbury Troubadours in America and toured with them in Australia and New Zealand in 1878. Later he joined with comedian Louis Harrison and toured with him for five years. He often visited his uncles in Detroit in the 1870s and 1880s. He married his Australian wife Hannah Lambert in August 1884 in Detroit. The reception was held at Alfred Gourlay’s home at 647 2nd Avenue. In 1887, they returned to Australia, where John continued his career.

In an 1893 article featuring John’s reminiscences, he recounted a story about him and his brother Robert: “We had been separated from childhood, for 16 years. When I was in Chicago I received a telegram from an uncle in business in Detroit, saying that Bob was with him, but was just then in Chicago on business. I took train from Chicago, and Bob sat beside me in the carriage. Neither of us know the other, and Bob proved to be a young man of very taking proclivities. He smoked most of my cigars, and, as the weather was cold, took my overcoat, and wound up by borrowing fifty cents. I found he was well known to the police, for when we arrived at a station near Detroit a policeman called out, ‘Hello, Gourlay!’ I got up and looked out of the carriage window, and he did the same. ‘What,’ I said, ‘is your name Gourlay?’ ‘It is,’ he said. Business, fraternal embrace. As Bob and I are both Scotch, I made him return the fifty cents.”

Of George, James, and Alfred Gourlay, only Alfred had children. He and Laura had a daughter and a son – Helen Lawson Gourlay (1873-1960), who married Vernon C. Fry, and Charles A. Gourlay (1879-1963). In the 1880 census, James and Jean were boarding with Alexander R. Linn and his family. James’ mother Helen died September 15, 1880 in Detroit and was buried in Woodmere Cemetery. In 1884, James Gourlay became a deacon at Plum Street Church of Christ and an elder in 1897.

Advertisements for Gourlay Bros., Linn Bros., and Lorman’s ice company from the “Report of Proceedings of the Michigan Christian Missionary Association at the 16th Annual Meeting held in Detroit, October 4-5, 1884”

In the June 1, 1900 U.S. Census, James and Jean Gourlay were living at 649 (now 3747) 2nd Avenue with George Gourlay and a servant named Anna Mitchell. James’ and George’s occupation was “gents furnisher.” Alfred (also a “gents furnisher”), Laura and their children Helen and Charles were living in the two-family house at 647 (now 3745) 2nd Avenue. Margaret Gourlay, Alfred’s sister, was also living with him. Around this time, the store moved to 153 Woodward Avenue (now 1059).

James Gourlay built this house in Detroit, now at 3745-3747 2nd Ave., in 1880
Gourlay Brothers sign on the left, at 153 (1059) Woodward Avenue in 1909, between Michigan and State Streets – from Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library

George Gourlay, who acted as manager of Gourlay Brothers, died on Saturday, December 8, 1900 at 7 AM at his brother James’ house, where he had been living. The 12/9/1900 Free Press said that George “had left the store in unusual spirits Friday evening, and his jovial and splendid disposition was in evidence, as with his usual pleasantry he joked with the men in the store.” He had been a president of the Detroit Musical Society and had sung before President Lincoln. His funeral was at Plum Street Church of Christ and he was buried in Woodmere Cemetery.

george gourlay
George Gourlay

In 1901, James Gourlay declared bankruptcy with a debt of $23,096.97 and assets of $15,582. His house and $216 in personal assets were exempt. He stated that his petition had nothing to do with Gourlay Brothers (Detroit Free Press, 3/9/1901). In August 1904, James retired from Gourlay Brothers, while his brother Alfred continued the company at 153 Woodward Avenue.

In the 1910 census, James and Alfred and their wives were living at 647 2nd Ave. Margaret, their sister, was living with Alfred and Laura. Laura died on December 8, 1911 at the age of 59 of mitral regurgitation. Jean Gourlay died on July 18, 1916 of hemipligia, which is paralysis on one side of the body. Margaret died on March 8, 1918 at the age of 88 of senility and old age.

Alfred Gourlay remarried on September 3, 1919 in London, Ontario to Mary Talbot. James died November 19, 1919 after six months of “senility of cerebral arteries.” His funeral was held at Plum Street and he was buried in Woodmere Cemetery. He was an elder at Plum Street for many years and was a choir leader. In the 1920 census, Alfred was still living at 647 2nd Avenue. He was listed as married, but Mary was not enumerated with him. His niece, Sara Gourlay, who was his half-brother William’s youngest child. She was 64, while Alfred was 75. Sara had been a nurse in Battle Creek, Michigan for many years. Alfred, at the time living at 1494 Virginia Park in Detroit, died on March 5, 1930 of cerebral apoplexy at the age of 84. His wife Mary was the informant on the death certificate. He was buried in Woodmere Cemetery with his first wife Laura.


[George Gourlay obituary]. (January 10, 1901). The Christian Evangelist, v. 38(2), page 50.

Boyd, R. Vernon. A History of the Stone-Campbell Churches in Michigan, 2009.

“Thirty-six years on the stage.” Star (Christchurch), Issue 4750, September 16, 1893, page 1.

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